Michelle sets her tea down as she sinks to the floor in her room. Relaxing, she closes her eyes and lowers her head in prayer as silence fills the space around her. Deep breath in, deep breath out. It’s a small ritual that centers her. She is getting ready for a healing.
A ring from her phone cuts through the silence. She picks it up and is greeted by the connecting operator. “Are you available to take a call?” asks a voice. Michelle clears her throat and takes one last breath. “Yes,” she says.
“Hi, I am Michelle, how can I support you? What do you need help with today?”
On the other end of the line, a sexual assault survivor is ready to tell their story.
Dozens of confidential sexual assault survivor advocates in the Bay Area take calls like these every day. For survivors on the other end of the line, these calls mark the first time they’ve shared their assaults. For the next 20 minutes or so, their silence ends as the callers do the one thing they feel laws and policies, intimidation, and fear of judgment have deterred them from: they speak.
“Sometimes they don’t open up easily, but you give them time and space,” said Clementine, a confidential sexual assault survivor advocate for San Francisco Women Against Rape.
Advocates like Clementine and Michelle are volunteers trained to listen to sexual assault survivors. In training programs ranging from four to eight weeks, volunteers learn about various forms of sexual assault, the ways it may affect people and, most important, how to actively listen and validate survivors of sexual assault.
There are several confidential sexual assault organizations in the Bay Area. Abby, who works at Bay Area Women Against Rape, says volunteers undergo a 40-hour mandated certificate training standardized by the state of California before working with survivors. Once they receive their certificates, they undergo further training based on the regulations of their respective crisis centers.
Abby said that although confidential advocates tend to be women, there are people with various gender identities to match their diverse range of callers.
“I hold space for women,” said Michelle, who works at Bay Area Women Against Rape, an organization based in Oakland. She says they are not there to judge, they are there to support.
Anita, a confidential sexual assault survivor advocate with Rape Trauma Services in Burlingame, California said she’s had women who’ve answered the phone screaming, but the stories she hears on the phone rarely surprise her.
“I didn’t grow up in a household where it’s all, like, rainbows and stuff,” she said. “I mean, everyone has their life, but I grew up with parents who were drug addicts. I just feel like we live in a world where a lot of that stuff happens.”
However, in moments like that, sometimes she finds clarity in a deep breath before continuing to assuage her caller. She knows not to take any of it personally.
So she tells them that being angry is fine, Michelle said, that she will be there and that she will listen and not take offense.
For those who have been given unsolicited advice and opinions concerning their assaults, that promise is attractive.
Survivors of sexual assault often resist filing cases for two reasons: the involvement of alcohol, and the difficulty in getting justice.
Khirin Carter, the Graduate Prevention Program Manager at UC Berkeley’s PATH to Care Center, said the societal misconception that alcohol and sex are intrinsically connected makes it difficult for people to speak out on their experiences if alcohol is involved.
It ignores the fact that perpetrators often use alcohol as a weapon and a camouflage for their behavior. If perpetrators believe that no one is going to hold them accountable, they are more likely to engage in harmful behavior.
For those able to withstand those challenges and report their assaults, the hurdles of getting a conviction are high.
“Sometimes not every case wins like it does in Law and Order SVU,” said Lynn, a confidential sexual assault survivor advocate with Rape Trauma Services.
Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner’s three-month stint in jail for the rape of an unconscious woman is a case in point.
“That shows us how the power system works. They have evidence, they have witnesses and still he got a slap on the wrist,” said Anita. She said many callers refer to that case as why they don’t report their own sexual assaults.
According to a study published by Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, about two out of every three sexual assaults go unreported.
“I didn’t tell anybody about my assault until I was 13,” said Anita, who was sexually assaulted as a child. “Nothing really happened, it was more like I was at fault because I didn’t come forward.”
Anita was also raped when she was 15. What followed was an invasive police interrogation, a rape kit, a letter and then silence.
Anita remembers that at the time of the rape she acted like it never happened, she blocked it out completely. It wasn’t until years later, when she says she was at the lowest part of her life, that she knew she needed help.
“I think that’s when it hit me that there were certain things that weren’t resolved, that I needed to get help.” She said she would have committed suicide if it wasn’t for her daughter, Elena.
With therapy and time, Anita was able to move past her pain. Volunteering as a confidential sexual assault survivor advocate, she helped others with theirs.
“I actually feel like I’m doing something that I wish someone would have done for me when I was alone at the time,” she said.
Confidential sexual assault hotlines in the Bay area include:
San Francisco Women Against Rape: (415) 647-7273
Bay Area Women Against Rape: (510) 845-7273
Highland Sexual Assault Center: (510) 534-9290
Rape Trauma Services: (650) 692-7273
SafeQuest Solano: (866) 487-7233
Napa Emergency Women’s Services, Sexual Assault Victims Services: (707) 255-6397
YWCA Rape Crisis Center: (408) 287-3000 or (650) 493-7273
Tri-Valley Haven: (925) 449-5842 or (800) 884-8199
Verity: (707) 545-7573